Can Marta seize moment, make most of opportunity on home soil?

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A five-time FIFA World Player of the Year (2006-10), Marta led Brazil to silver medals in the 2004 and '08 Olympics.

The moment will be unmistakably Brazilian should Marta find herself in Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium for the Olympic women's soccer final. The iconic stadium, familiar yellow and green jerseys atop blue shorts, and the swells of the national anthem will make the 11 women on the field the representatives of 200 million people.

But none of those trappings were present when Christen Press first played alongside Marta in Sweden's top professional league. It was Stockholm, not Rio. The jerseys bore the names of sponsors, not a national crest.

Still, the American player saw something that told its own story of identity.

"She really does embody how I view Brazilian soccer," Press said. "She takes the emotion and she brings it to the next level. I've seen her cry on the field. I've seen her scream on the field. I've seen her so jubilant on the field. And just swing from the range of emotions that a player can have -- and that we all feel, but that I think a lot of us, especially in [the United States], try to bury them under a stone-cold assassin-type of mindset. She did the opposite.

Jakob Carlsen

Marta won the Golden Ball (top player) and Golden Boot (top scorer) awards at the 2007 World Cup, where Brazil finished second.

"She just embraced how much she loved the game and how much it could hurt her. And she used that."

How much she loved it and how much it could hurt her. Two sides of a coin for women's soccer in Brazil.

Just as Marta is the product of a culture that both breathes soccer but also shunned and even outlawed women playing it for nearly four decades. A culture that still struggles to reconcile that contradiction.

Just as a gold medal would be the capstone on one of the most culturally influential careers in modern sports but also its own reminder of the limits of any one individual's ability to effect change.

Five times officially honored as FIFA's player of the year, Marta is perennially in the discussion as the world's best female player. For others, the case is made why that label is merited. For Marta, the case must instead be made why it isn't. Best in the world has been her default setting for at least a decade.

Missing from the résumé is a major tournament title, Brazil settling for silver medals in the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and the runner-up medal in the 2007 World Cup. These Olympics might not be her last chance to win. She will be 33 years old when the next World Cup takes place in France, essentially the same age as the most recent winners of that event's Golden Ball: Carli Lloyd in 2015 and Japan's Homare Sawa in 2011.

Unless Marta chooses to make it so, this need not be a farewell.

But there will never be an opportunity for a statement as powerful one made on home soil.

She really does embody how I view Brazilian soccer. She takes the emotion and she brings it to the next level. ... She just embraced how much she loved the game and how much it could hurt her.
U.S. forward Christen Press on Brazil star Marta

Well-trod as it is by now, some of the history bears repeating. For much of the 20th century there was a law in Brazil, Decree Law 3199 passed under the presidency of Getulio Vargas in 1941, that prohibited females from playing soccer.

When Pele played his first childhood game, it was illegal for girls to do the same. When he scored two goals against host Sweden to win the World Cup in 1958, the same was true. As it still was when he played his final game in 1977 in front of a full house at Giants Stadium.

Not until 1979, just seven years before Marta was born, was the law officially repealed.

The prohibition was no more complete than any prohibition on human behavior. There were still girls who played, of course. But the chilling effect was unmistakable, two distinct Brazilian experiences created.

Like so many Brazilian boys, Pedro Rita grew up with the sport, anything even vaguely round enough to serve as a ball sufficient. He played professionally in Brazil and moved to the United States, where he is now the director of soccer development for a training facility in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and soccer director for the Michigan Tigers FC youth program. He isn't Pele or Neymar, but he is one version of the Brazilian soccer dream. He even wrote a children's book inspired by his own life, about a boy who finds purpose through soccer.

For so long in Brazil, it could only be a boy's story.

"I never saw a girl playing soccer when I was a kid or even after I was a pro player," Rita said. "It was just a sport girls wouldn't usually play."

That, at least, is changing. It has changed even from Marta's childhood two decades ago.

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Marta and Brazil open Olympic play Wednesday against China in Rio De Janeiro. Marta has eight goals in three previous Olympic appearances.

"I think that today we may not have the same amount of girls playing soccer than you see playing in the United States, for example," Marta said through translation when she played two games in the United States last fall. "But it is a somewhat greater amount in Brazil than back when I started to play. And also, the sense of prejudice, discrimination was much greater back then, and although today we haven't gotten rid of it 100 percent, a larger percentage of the Brazilian population accepts women's soccer in a more positive way."

What she does not say is that she isn't just the beneficiary of that change but its catalyst.

American Caitlin Fisher first went to Brazil in 2004 to play for Santos F.C., one of the legendary teams in Brazilian soccer. What she found was a second-class experience. Women's players walked miles to practice, washed their own uniforms and couldn't eat in the main dining room. She also saw passion that allowed teammates to put up with those conditions. After returning again to Santos in 2010, she and teammates formed the Guerreiras Project, which states as its mission to "use futebol as a tool to promote gender justice and create possibilities for more equitable and sustainable ways of being."

It is a grassroots effort to do workshops with children but also parents, train ambassadors within the sport, raise visibility and confront stereotypes. Just how grassroots is evident when Fisher notes that even Aline Pellegrino, a co-director of the project and a former longtime captain of the women's national team, can walk unrecognized in many cities. That stands in stark contrast to Aline's former national team teammate, recognizable anywhere.

While Marta had to go overseas to find a professional environment commensurate with her skills, a generation of Brazilian girls found it easier to play at home because of her.

She in many ways has transcended gender, has represented Brazil, has been this phenomenal star .... That has opened a lot of doors for parents and families and others, letting young girls play and encouraging them to do so.
Caitlin Fisher on Marta's impact

"Marta has had a huge role in this as a role model for young girls and boys as this star icon in women's football," Fisher said. "But being the best female player in the world five times over, that she in many ways has transcended gender, has represented Brazil, has been this phenomenal star, that it doesn't matter if she's a man or woman. ... Everyone knows her. It's incredible.

"I think that has opened a lot of doors for parents and families and others, letting young girls play and encouraging them to do so."

But if it is easier for girls to want to be like Marta, it is hardly any easier to actually be her.

Where it is easy to track the progression of programs of counties like France or Japan, once international afterthoughts but now powers, Brazil is a puzzle. Its successes, the deep Olympic and World Cup runs, seemingly meandered into dead ends. The team that fizzled in the World Cup a year ago looked more like one trying to hang on to past credibility more than improve on it. Brazil in many ways remains what it was when it beat the United States for the first time in 1997, a group with the talent to do just that but without the infrastructure to do it consistently.

Only the prospect of the Olympics brought about at least short-term commitment to change that, Brazilian players training for the upcoming tournament in rare full-time residency settings.

"We had great moments with the national team, yet we didn't have enough support to go to competitions and get to the point where we could fight for titles," Marta said. "Despite those difficulties, we made it. Now we have a better situation on the national team, yet I hope it's not too late, because in a certain way we missed out on some of the best moments in the sport, like the [Olympic gold-medal] game in 2004, then 2007, 2008.

"But I believe there's still time for us to change that, even though we may not have all the recognition we should have."

Between the thirst for gold medals familiar to an Olympic host and Brazil's specific passion for soccer success in the wake of recent disappointments from the men's team, the Olympics offer an opportunity to claim recognition. As long as the women win, of course.

As Marta put it: "To demand results is an inherent part of Brazilians."

But would results demand permanent change? Or would the same fate befall the women's program that befalls so many former Olympic venues, left to melt away once the world leaves?

"I do not believe anything will change for the women's side in Brazil," Rita said of a potential gold medal. "Brazil soccer is very corrupted, and it's being controlled by two or three people that are on top. No matter what happens with Brazil women's team, it will not give them more money to work. Brazil offers nothing for our players. Look at where the Brazilian players are playing and why. The system is dirty and sick, and I do not believe it will change soon."

Change from the grassroots perspective might be more inevitable but its pace remains halting.

Fisher's time involved with women's football in Brazil parallels Marta's international career (the latter made her major tournament debut at 17 years old in the 2003 World Cup). Even as she has seen opportunity and access grow, other forms of resistance remain. Gender stereotypes remain entrenched, for example, the women's game in mainstream settings carefully packaged to conform to traditional ideas of femininity (though that is hardly exclusive to Brazil).

"There's been encouraging waves and moments and discouraging waves and moments," Fisher said. "And it's hard to say what is two steps forward and one step back, what is one step sideways. I think there is a lot of that. It's hard to figure out what is progress."

All of which makes it hard to figure out exactly what it would mean even if the most visible ambassador of the women's game in Brazil achieved her greatest moment in the Maracana.

It is not as easy as imagining a Brazilian version of the 1999 World Cup in the Rose Bowl.

"I prefer not to think of [the pressure to win] and make things happen," Marta said. "And if we get a good result, it'll be great for everyone."

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